Bellman, Carl Michael

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Carl Michael Bellman

Swedish poet and musician Carl Michael Bellman (1740–1795), often recognized as one of Sweden's last great troubadours, remains a famous musical figure in his native Sweden to this day, despite having little notoriety elsewhere in the world. A colorful man who was the recipient of royal patronage and a composer of popular drinking songs, Bellman produced poetry, satires, and plays in addition to his most well–known work, the song cycle Fredmans epistlar (Fredman's Epistles).

Early Life in Stockholm and Uppsala

Hendrik Willem van Loon commented in The Last of the Troubadours: the Life of Carl Michael Bellman, "whenever three Swedes . . . are together, they not only will know the greater part of Bellman's works, but they will actually be able to sing the old fellow's songs . . . All the words will be there, and all the verses will be there, and no variations, if you please, upon the original melodies." This enduring fame belongs to a man who was born on February 4, 1740, into relatively modest conditions in Stockholm, Sweden. One of twenty–one children, Carl Michael Bellman was the eldest surviving child of Johan Arndt Bellman, a civil servant, and Catharina Hermonia, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Growing up, Bellman was educated both at a small local school and by private tutors, learning several foreign languages and demonstrating an early ability for poetry. Following a brief and unsuccessful stint with the State Bank, Bellman took a leave of absence from his job in 1758 to attend the university at Uppsala. After only one term—during which no records reflect him attending a single lecture—Bellman returned to Stockholm to sit the recently re–instituted entrance examination for his position at the Bank. Despite abysmal performance, Bellman retained his position; however, most of his time and attention was focused on exploring Stockholm's nearly 700 taverns.

A popular young man, Bellman had a great number of friends both during his stay at Uppsala and in Stockholm—many of whom came from much wealthier circumstances than did Bellman. Accustomed to their heavy spending, Bellman and some of his other more middle–class friends began living far beyond their means. Unsurprisingly, Bellman acquired a large amount of debt that he was unable to pay. By 1763, his situation had become so bad that Bellman somewhat desperately left the country for neighboring Norway, hoping to clear passage for a few of his other financially–strapped acquaintances. A few months later, however, Bellman returned to his family's home near Stockholm and declared bankruptcy. Because financial problems beset many of Bellman's colleagues at the State Bank, an inquiry was made into the matter. In April 1764, the investigating commissioners found Bellman to be the instigator of the debtor debacle and relieved him of his position with the Bank.

For Bellman, things turned from bad to worse the following year when both of his parents died. Devastated particularly by the death of his mother, Bellman began writing poetry extensively. Shortly after his parents' deaths, a family friend found Bellman a job with a different branch of the Swedish civil service and Bellman moved back to Stockholm. In The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman, Paul Britten Austin commented that "[Bellman] must have appreciated the charms of Stockholm as never before. Every alley and quay must have seemed a backdrop for the drama of existence; every roving drunk a creature of myth." Re–entering the active life of the capital—and exhibiting no more responsibility than he had before—Bellman settled into a comfortable existence of doing the minimum of work required by his new job with the Office of Manufactures, amusing his friends with his poems, and frequenting the taverns of Stockholm.

Popularity and Fredman's Epistles

In 1768, Bellman's songs and poetry became the property of a larger group of admirers than merely his drinking companions with the emergence of his first song cycle, Fredmans epistlar, or Fredman's Epistles. The work was inspired by a heavy–drinking former courtier who had fallen on hard times in the 1750s and was presumably a character often seen by Bellman on his rounds of Stockholm's bars. A collection of approximately 80 poems set to already–known, popular music, Fredman's Epistles covers the drunken adventures and musings of its fictional hero, Fredman. The songs were not conceived as one group, but instead were written primarily between 1768 and 1773. In 1773, Bellman contracted with a local printer to publish his poems in four volumes. However, these plans fell through, and Fredman's Epistles were not comprehensively published until 1790, perhaps due to the difficulty and expense of printing musical scores. Despite this lack of formalization, the songs were a huge hit, and Fredman's Epistles remains Bellman's best–known work.

Another work perhaps altered the course of Bellman's life more significantly, however. In 1772, the young and ambitious Swedish Prince Gustav bloodlessly overthrew the parliamentary council, the Riksdag, which had been governing Sweden for approximately half a century. A strong royalist, Bellman had previously published a poem supporting the young prince in a major Swedish newspaper; upon hearing of now–King Gustav III's coup, Bellman rushed to the officers' mess with some friends, all singing a slightly–tweaked version of Bellman's poem. The officers quickly learned the song, and within hours the new King had heard the song—and had learned of the song's authorship. From that moment until the King's death in 1792, Bellman would enjoy the benefits of royal favor.

Years of Royal Patronage

With Gustav's ascension to the Swedish throne, the tenor of Swedish cultural life changed. Gustav, a patron of the arts and a progressive ruler, presided over what is commonly considered to be the Swedish Enlightenment, an era which—for a time—increased personal freedoms and promoted international cooperation. Himself a playwright and poet, King Gustav took a particular interest in the arts, founding the Swedish Academy in 1786. Perhaps because of his artistic bent, King Gustav demanded constant amusement—and one of his favorite entertainers was Carl Michael Bellman. Bellman rose to the task and began to recast some of his poetry in a manner more fitting to Gustav's new Sweden. Austin has argued that: "Gustav, we may be sure, did not fail to advise Bellman in matters poetic. All around, a new society was being born. Should its acknowledged poet sing only of brothels and seamen's taverns?" Following Gustav's ascension to the throne, the general tone of Bellman's works became somewhat more polished and in touch with the rising bourgeoisie culture.

In 1775, Gustav's position as Bellman's royal patron seems to have solidified. Bellman, who had continued to live on his somewhat meager salary from the civil service, had also continued to rack up debts more quickly than he could imagine paying them back. In an attempt to shore up Bellman's position, King Gustav allocated an annual grant for Bellman out of the crown's privy purse in 1775, and at the close of that year, secured Bellman a position as Director of the recently instituted National Lottery. Bellman filled this position with the same complete disinterest and incompetence that he had brought to his previous civil service positions; Austin noted that "in January 1777, [Bellman] wrote the minutes of the board misdated by a whole year." More troubling for Bellman was his continued shortage of money; even with his new sinecure and annual grant, he still lived far beyond his means. However, his finances had improved sufficiently for him to marry.

On December 19, 1777, Bellman married Lovisa Frederica Grönlund, a young woman who was a member of the circle frequented by the court–sponsored artists such as Bellman. Although Bellman was seventeen years older than his bride, genuine affection seems to have existed between the two. In recognition of Bellman's tendency to extreme debt, however, a pre–nuptial contract specified that all of the furniture and other household goods Lovisa brought with her in the marriage remained solely her own property; this prevented the Bellmans' household from being completely stripped when debt collectors came calling. In the years immediately following his marriage, Bellman spent much of his time writing and performing songs for King Gustav and other members of the court. In recognition of this, Bellman received an honorary title of Royal Court Secretary in addition to his sinecure with the Lottery and annual funding. A few years later in 1783, Bellman published his first major work in book form, Bacchi tempel öppnat vid en hjältes död (Bacchus' Temple, Opened on the Death of a Hero). This long poem was less popular than his drinking songs, but was nevertheless Bellman's most cohesive work.

Bellman's Decline in Fortunes

Throughout the 1780s, the enlightened age ushered in by Gustav III began to crumble. Gustav himself lost interest in his social programs, and began focusing more and more on his own artistic interests and on establishing his reputation for posterity as a foreign conqueror. Support for Gustav's reign dwindled. Bellman's most well–known works were at last published formally as Fredmans epistlar in 1790 and Fredmans sänger (Fredman's Songs) in 1791, encompassing the majority of Bellman's popular drinking songs and parody songs. These publications came in the nick of time for Bellman; on March 17, 1792, an assassin shot the King at a masquerade. Two weeks later, Gustav died. With him died royal support for Bellman; Gustav's successor was as unlike the art–loving King as possible, making the King's coterie of poets, artists, and playwrights rapidly unwelcome at the court. Bellman's comfortable position as a royal favorite no longer existed.

The years following Gustav's assassination were marked for Bellman by increasingly poor health. Never an overwhelmingly healthy man, Bellman battled successive illnesses, including gout, tuberculosis, and probably the effects of alcoholism in the last years of his life. He lost his position with the National Lottery as the result of his incompetence and his illness once his royal patron was gone, leaving him also to deal unaided with the huge debts he had built up over his lifetime. On February 11, 1794, during a particularly harsh winter, Bellman died as the result of illness, possibly consumption. Because of his financial problems, his wife was forced to sell practically all of his possessions to pay his debts; Bellman's funeral was small, and his grave unmarked. Austin noted that due to construction work "in 1853, Bellman's bones must have been dug up and flung pell mell with many others into a common grave." Today, a monument placed by the Swedish Academy honors Bellman's memory in the Sankta Clara churchyard in Stockholm.

The Legacy of the Swedish Troubadour

Despite Bellman's ignoble end, his works have lived on. Primarily a poet, Bellman composed little of the music his songs used; most of the melodies came from popular French music, and occasionally from other sources such as Swedish country songs or noted composers such as Haydn and Handel. Through the 20th century, Bellman remained a popular figure in Scandinavia; his complete works, including previously unpublished plays and poems, were published in a standard edition as Bellmans skrifter (Bellman's Writings) in 1921.


Austin, Paul Britten, The Life and Songs of Carl Michael Bellman: Genius of the Swedish Rococo, Allhem Publishers, 1967.

Massengale, James Rhea, Musical–Poetic Method of C. M. Bellman, Almqvist and Wiksell, 1979.

Van Loon, Hendrik and Grace Castagnetta, The Last of the Troubadours: The Life and Music of Carl Michael Bellman, Simon and Schuster, 1939.


"Bellman, Carl Michael," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, (January 14, 2005).

"Gustav III," Encyclopedia Britannica Online, (January 15, 2005).

"Carl Michael Bellman," Grove Music Online, (January 14, 2005).

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Carl Michael Bellman

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